The kid was the son of an Arkansas sharecropper. Quit school in the seventh grade during the Great Depression. Worked in a sawmill for a buck and a half a day. Then, after two years in the Army and another stint at the sawmill – where he and his brothers loaded surplus lumber and sold it to builders – he began driving for East Texas Motor Freight.

He was 21 years old, making $40 a week, and getting married to the love of his life. Johnnie Bryan Hunt Sr. was on his way, and he had a vision. In fact, a lot of visions.

J.B., who died last month at 79, was never your everyday truck driver. His energy was boundless, and there was always another business on the side. He didn't need higher education to make him successful; he was very, very smart from the get-go.

After some driving jobs and starting a successful company that sold rice hulls to poultry farmers, he got into hauling processed poultry. His fleet was a handful of used tractors and some refrigerated trailers. But his customer shut down.

He switched to hauling exempt farm commodities and began acquiring operating authorities. In the late '70s, with deregulation looming, he had more than a dozen authorities and the list was growing.

One would think that, as a regulated carrier, he'd join others in fighting deregulation to protect himself. But that wasn't his vision. This was: Low-cost, efficient carriers were going to thrive in the new free market.

He and his managers put together just such a model, and when the Congressional ax fell in 1980, they – along with several others – were ready.

The company targeted the best traffic lanes, minimized empty runs, bought terminals, spent on safety and gave drivers plenty of miles. When Hunt went public in 1983, the securities folks were impressed that a trucking company could be so well run.

Its operating ratio was averaging 79 percent, compared to the industry average of 96.

Other innovations – intermodal hauling, Mexican operations, dedicated services – followed, and the company had its ups and downs. But J.B.'s vision of hiring the right people has persevered. Today, with most of his top managers still in charge, it's a $6 billion operation with 28,000 employees.

J.B. "retired" 11 years ago, and devoted those incredible energies – and a lot of money – to developing northwest Arkansas real estate (another sideline).

There was more to this tall, friendly man in the cowboy boots and cowboy hat (yep; he wore those to Wall Street meetings, too). When he shook your hand and introduced himself, you felt like you'd known him all along; he exuded sincerity.

His vision wasn't limited to business, by the way. It served him immensely well in selecting a life partner. Johnelle Hunt, that love of his young life, worked at his side through it all. She contributed immensely to making his creative ideas work. Just as warm and sincere as J.B., she even counseled drivers and their families.

There are lots of high-energy business leaders who are plenty smart, with plenty of vision. But few have that other quality that sets them apart: the common sense to make things work. J.B. had it all.

Doug Condra 


E-mail Doug Condra at, or write PO Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.